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Contemplating Christ in the Church: the Mystagogy of St Maximos the Confessor

In anticipation of our Colloquium on the Mystagogy of St Maximos the Confessor (April 28-30, 2022), the Pappas Patristic Institute will be offering a series of posts on the Mystagogy written by Fr Maximos Constas, the Director of the Pappas Patristic Institute. In this post, which is the first of the series, Fr Maximos offers a general introduction to the work, along with a survey of the principal Greek manuscripts and modern translations.


The Mystagogy is St Maximos the Confessor’s commentary on the Eucharistic synaxis, which we commonly refer to today as the Divine Liturgy. Maximos’s commentary is the second oldest such commentary after Dionysios the Areopagite’s On the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, which the Confessor refers to in his own work. There is a sense in which the Mystagogy belongs to what we can fairly describe as a trilogy of works that Maximos produced, the other two volumes being Maximos’s Ambigua to John and the Responses to Thalassios. The trilogy consists of a series of richly imbricated contemplations, with each volume focused on a particular object or field of contemplation.

In the Ambigua to John, the focus of contemplation is the natural world, which is understood to be a kind of text, which Maximos calls the “book of nature.” In the Responses to Thalassios, the focus is on an actual book, sacred scripture, which Maximos compares to a human being, having letters as its body and meaning as its soul. In the Mystagogy, the focus is on the nature of the church and the symbolism of its ritual spaces, culminating in the sanctuary and altar table, which is the goal toward which both natural and scriptural contemplation are always striving.

Despite their different foci, the three works are united by a common hermeneutic, namely, a movement from (1) the surface appearance of creation to its metaphysical ground in God; (2) from the letter of scripture to its inner spirit; and (3) from the outward performance of liturgical rituals to their inner meaning and purpose. Through this threefold mystagogy, Maximos initiates his readers into one and the same mystery of Christ, since what is revealed in the logoi of creation is also revealed in the words of scripture as well as in the symbolic forms of the liturgy. In both scripture and creation, Maximos sees the presence of the Logos as a form of divine “embodiment,” just as he sees the historical incarnation as the embodiment of the Logos in the church, his mystical body.

Though these three contemplations have different points of departure, their paths merge and become progressively unified as they approach their common goal, which is God, who is at once the creator of the world, the author of sacred scripture, and the head of the Church. That they can be unified is due to Maximos’s emphasis on the continuity of divine revelation (in creation, scripture, and the church) and to his non-dualistic understanding of the sensible and the intelligible, each of which is interior to the other. The trilogy, then, is not a series of isolated initiations into nature, scripture, or liturgy as such, but all three work together to offer a unified initiation into the mystery of Christ, the incarnate Logos.

When seen in light of the incarnation, the structures of the church are unified with those of creation and human nature, ceasing to be separate and independent of each other. However, their unity in Christ must be appropriated and actualized by the community of believers, who, through their liturgical movement toward God, bestow upon these structures the character of the church as actualized. These are among the central themes of the Mystagogy which we will explore in this series of short essays.

As for the work’s title, the word “mystagogy” means to lead or induct (ἄγειν) someone into a mystery, and thus “initiation into a mystery.” The word mysterion has a broad range of meanings, and in patristic literature is closely related to both the incarnation and to liturgy. The “mystery” par excellence is God’s plan of redemption and deification (and includes its foreshadowing in Scripture). At the same time, the meaning of the word is extended to include liturgy and the sacraments, where the mystery of salvation is made present and available to the faithful.

It follows, then, that “mystagogy” is the process through which one is brought more deeply into the mysteries, the sacraments, which are “signs” both containing and pointing beyond themselves to another reality. From this point of view, mystagogy is not unlike moving from outward appearances to their inner depth: from the written word to its meaning and spirit; from the outer forms and symbols of liturgy to their inner content, in what is an inherently hermeneutical movement. We can take this further and say that all hermeneutics are mystagogical and thus liturgical, because they do not occur outside of the framework of liturgy and the sacraments. Thus, “mystagogy” is an ongoing experience, a way of life, an existential stance, a passage or diabasis, as St Maximos would call it, from the outer world to the inner world. This is the movement of the soul to the Logos, and at the same time the movement of the Logos to the soul. The “true Passover is the passage of the Word to the mind, a passage in which the Word of God is mystically present and grants his fullness to all those who are worthy, by making them share in the good things that are proper to him.”[1]

The Mystagogy was most probably written in the third or fourth decade of the seventh century, when Maximos was living in North Africa. The work is made up of 24 chapters of unequal length, with a prologue and epilogue. The work may be divided into two parts: chapters 1-7, which deal with the symbolism of the church building, the world, and Scripture; and chapters 8-24, which deal with the symbolism of the Eucharistic liturgy. Some scholars have raised doubts about the authorship of portions of chapter 24, which they believe to be the work of a disciple or scholiast. Others disagree, and see chapter 24 as a key recapitulation of the entire work, and it is noteworthy that the entire text of chapter 24 is found in all the extant manuscripts.

Manuscripts and Reception of the Mystagogy

The Mystagogy survives in more than forty manuscripts, the oldest of which was copied in the tenth century (though the oldest witness to the text is a ninth-century partial Latin translation by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, noted below). Most of these manuscripts contain the collected works of St Maximos (in which the Mystagogy is often followed by Maximos’s Commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, an essential text of Christian mystagogy); others contain writings by a range of patristic authors, sometimes organized around a particular theme but often a miscellany. Thus, in one manuscript, the Mystagogy appears between Nemesius of Emesa, On the Nature of Man, and a commentary on the feasts of the church by Anastasios the presbyter; in another, the Mystagogy appears between Anastasios of Sinai’s Homilies on Creation and the same commentary on the feasts by Anastasios (the Mystagogy is paired with this work in a total of four manuscripts). In other manuscripts, the Mystagogy is copied together with the works of Dionysios the Areopagite and is also found in collections of liturgical commentaries.

Texts have their afterlives, and they are studied by later readers and thus become part of the larger tradition of ecclesiastical scholarship, theology, and more generally of the life of the Church. Manuscripts that contain the text of the original work are known as “direct witnesses” to the text, and as such constitute the “direct tradition.” When later readers refer to or copy citations and excerpts from the original text into their own writings (or when the text is translated into another language), these latter become “secondary witnesses” and form part of the “indirect tradition,” which are often critical in reconstructing the original version of the text.

The most important secondary witnesses to the Mystagogy, in chronological order, include Germanos of Constantinople, who, in the eighth century incorporated extensive excerpts from the Mystagogy in his Commentary on the Divine Liturgy.[2] In the ninth century, Anastasius Bibliothecarius, who for a period of time lived in Constantinople, produced a Latin translation of Mystagogy chapter 24.[3] In the following century, a Greek Life of St Maximos the Confessor mentions the Mystagogy in a descriptive list of the Confessor’s works. In the middle Byzantine period, passages from the Mystagogy were included in a Florilegium on the Holy Eucharist compiled by John Oxites, and in Niketas of Heracleia’s Catena on the Gospel of Luke. A late Byzantine Palamite florilegium cites passages from the Mystagogy, as does Mark of Ephesus, in his Letter to George of Methone.

The Greek Text

The Greek text of the Mystagogy was first edited by David Hoeschel, Sancti Maximi martyris Mystagogia (Augsburg: Ioannes Praetorius, 1599). Hoeschel’s Greek text was published with Hervet’s 1548 Latin translation, noted below.

Hoeschel’s edition, based on two manuscripts, was reprinted in Marguerin de la Bigne, Bibliothecae veterum patrum seu scriptorum ecclesiasticorum, vol. 2 (Paris: Compagnie de la Grand-Navire, 1624; repr. 1654), 166-97.

A new edition was produced by François Combefis, S. Maximi Confessoris opera, 2 vols (Paris: André Cramoisy, 1675); vol. 2, 489-527, together with a new Latin translation.

Jacques-Paul Migne, Patrologia graeca 91 (Paris, 1860), 657-717, reprints the text and translation of Combefis, and the PG text was subsequently re-published (with corrections) by Cantarella (1931); Sakalis (1973); and Chrestou and Zisis (1985) cited below.

Another edition was published by Charalampos G. Sotiropoulos, Ἡ Μυσταγωγία τοῦ ἁγίου Μαξίμου τοῦ Ὁμολογητοῦ (Athens, 1978; reprinted 1993), and again in a third edition, id., La Mystagogie de saint Maxime le Confesseur. Introduction, texte critique, traduction française et grecque (Athens, 2001).

The most recent and up-to-date Greek edition of the text has been edited by Christian Boudignon, Maximi Confessoris, Mystagogia. Una cum latina interpretatione Anastasii Bibliothecarii, Corpus Christianorum, Series graeca 69 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011). Boudignon’s edition is based on forty manuscripts ranging in date from the tenth to the sixteenth century.


Here is a list, in chronological order, of translations of the Mystagogy.

Gentien Hervet, Nicolai Cabasilae, De divino altaris sacrificio; Maximi Confessoris, De Mystagogia (Venice: Allesandro Brucioli, 1548) [Latin translation].

As noted above, François Combefis (1675) produced a new Latin translation in 1675.

In the following century, a Turkish translation was published by the Patriarchal Press in Constantinople: Sophos Solomonoun, Parimialari, Be serif ecclesenin rouchaniet manesi Omogolitis Maximosoun (Constantinople: Patriarchal Press, 1799), 73-132 (this is a Turkish translation, in Greek characters, of Proverbs and the Mystagogy).

Raffaele Cantarella, La mistagogia ed altri scritti, Testi cristiani 4 (Florence: Testi Cristiani, 1931), 122-214 (facing-page Greek text [PG] and Italian translation).

Myrrha Lot-Borodine, “Mystagogie de Saint Maxime,” Irénikon 13 (1936): 466-72, 595-97, 717-20; 14 (1937): 66-69, 182-85, 282-84, 444-48; 15 (1938): 71-74, 185-86, 276-78, 390-91, 488-92 (French translation).

Ignatios Sakalis, Μυσταγωγία τοῦ ἁγίου Μαξίμου τοῦ Ὁμολογητοῦ, Ἐπί τάς πηγάς 1 (Athens: Apostoliki Diakonia, 1973) (original text [PG] with facing-page modern Greek translation and an introduction by Fr Dumitru Staniloae, pp. 13-89).

Panayiotis Chrestou and Theodore Zisis, Φιλοκαλία τῶν νηπτικῶν καί ἀσκητικῶν, vol. 14 (Thessaloniki: E. Meretakis, 1985), 38-165 (original text [PG] with facing page modern Greek translation).

Dom Julian Stead, The Church, the Liturgy, and the Soul of Man: The Mystagogia of St. Maximus the Confessor (Still River, MA: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982), 59-120 (English translation).

George Berthold, The Church’s Mystagogy, in id., Maximus Confessor, Selected Writings, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York/Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1985), 183-214 (English translation).

Marie-Lucie Charpin-Ploix, Maxime le Confesseur, La Mystagogie, Les Pères dans la foi 92 (Paris: Diffusion Littéral, 2005), 71-154 (French translation).

Jonathan J. Armstrong, Saint Maximus the Confessor, On the Ecclesiastical Mystagogy: A Theological Vision of the Liturgy (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2019), 46-99 (facing-page text [CCSG, without the apparatus] and translation).

For Further Reading

Bakker, Michael, “Personal and Communal Mystagogy in St Maximus the Confessor,” in P. Van Geest, Seeing Through the Eyes of Faith (Leuven: Peeters, 2016), 389-400.

Blowers, Paul, “The Church and its Liturgy as Threshold of the New Creation,” in id., Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 166-95.

Booth, Phil, “Maximus and the Mystagogy,” in id., Crisis of Empire: Doctrine and Dissent at the End of Late Antiquity (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2017), 140-85.

Braniste, Ene, “Église et liturgie dans la ‘Mystagogie’ de saint Maxime le Confesseur,” in A. Triacca and A. Pistoia, Conferences Saint-Serge, XXVIe semaine d’études liturgiques, Paris, 26-29 Juin 1979 (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 1980), 67-79.

Cooper, Adam G., “St. Maximus the Confessor on Priesthood, Hierarchy, and Rome,” Pro Ecclesia 10 (2001): 346-67.

Dalmais, I.-H., “Un traité de théologie contemplative: Le commentaire du Pater Noster de s. Maxime le Confesseur,” Revue d'Ascétique et de Mystique29 (1953): 123-59.

______, “‘Place de la Mystagogie’ de saint Maxime le Confessuer dans la théologie liturgique byzantine,” Studia Patristica 5 (1962): 277-83.

______, “Mystère liturgique et divinisation dans la ‘Mystagogie’ de saint Maxime le Confesseur,” in Epektasis: mélanges patristiques offerts au cardinal Jean Daniélou (Paris: Beauchesne, 1972), 55-62.

Larchet, Jean-Claude, “La symbolique spirituelle de l’église selon la Mystagogie de saint Maxime le Confesseur,” in C. Braga, ed., L’espace liturgique: Ses éléments constitutifs et leur sens (Rome: Edizioni Liturgiche, 2006), 49-63.

Loudovikos, Nikolaos, Church in the Making: An Apophatic Ecclesiology of Consubstantiality (Yonkers, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2016).

______, “Eikon and mimesis: Eucharistic ecclesiology and the Ecclesial Ontology of Dialogical Reciprocity,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 11 (2011): 123-36.

Louth, Andrew, “Mystagogy in Saint Maximus,” in P. Van Geest, ed., Seeing through the Eyes of the Spirit (Leuven: Peeters, 2016), 375-88.

Mathews, Thomas F. The Early Churches of Constantinople: Architecture and Liturgy (University Park and London: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1971).

Mueller-Jourdan, Pascal, “La Vision (Theoria) Symbolique: À propos de la théorie de la connaisance appliquée par Maxime le Confesseur dans la Mystagogie,” Byzantion 76 (2006): 276-87.

______, Typologie spatio-temporelle de l’Ecclesia byzantine: La Mystagogie de Maxime le Confesseur dans la culture philosophique de l’antiquité tardive (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2005).

Pétridès, S., “Traités liturgiques de S. Maxime et de S. Germain traduits par Anastase le Bibliothécaire,” Revue de l’Orient Chrétien 10 (1905): 289-313; 350-64.

Riou, Alain, Le monde et l’église selon Maxime le Confesseur, Théologie historique 22 (Paris: Beauchesne, 1973).

Switkiewicz-Blandzi, A., “Notes on Denys Areopagite’s Ecclesiastical Hierarchy and its Influence on Maximus the Confessor’s Mystagogy,” Studia Mediewistyczne 34-35 (1999-2000); 54-70.

Taft, Robert, “The Liturgy of the Great Church: An Initial Synthesis of Stucture and Interpretation on the Eve of Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34-35 (1980): 45-75.

Van Geest, Paul, ed., Seeing Through the Eyes of Faith: New Approaches to the Mystagogy of the Church Fathers (Leuven: Peeters, 2016).

Van Rossum, Joost, “The Relationship between Dionysius the Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor: Revisiting the Problem,” Studia Patristica 96 (2017): 397-406.

Ware, Kallistos, “Symbolism in the Commentary of St Germanos of Constaninople,” in P. Van Geest, ed., Seeing through the Eyes of Faith (Leuven: Peeters, 2016), 423-43.

To be continued....


[1] Maximos the Confessor, Responses to Thalassios 3.5.

[2] I.e., Mystagogy chapters 15, 17-18, and 20-21. The textual tradition of Germanos’s Commentary is complex and in the course of its own transmission went through various editions and recensions, on which, see René Bornet, Les Commentaires byzantines de la Divine Liturgue du VIIe au XVe siècle, Arcives de l’Orient Chretien 9 (Paris: Institut Français d’Études Byzantines, 1966), 128-41.

[3] For a critical edition of the Latin text, see Christian Boudignon, Maximi Confessoris, Mystagogia una cum Latina interpretation Anastasii Bibliothecarii, Corpus Christianorum, series graeca 69 (Turnhout: Brepols, 2011), 77-89. See also Neil Bronwen, “Anastasius Bibliothecarius’ Latin Translation of Two Byzantine Liturgical Texts,” Ephimerides Liturgicae 114 (2000): 329-46.


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